To applause from fellow representatives, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley has put some distance between himself and the governor. Credit: House communications office

On Tuesday night, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley received a phone call from Paul Rainwater, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff. Rainwater and Kleckley both hail from the Lake Charles area and have known each other for nearly 20 years. Rainwater wanted to know why the following day’s Ways and Means Committee hearing on the governor’s sweeping tax plan had been cancelled.

Kleckley was blunt: The committee would not advance the tax bill – the governor’s chief priority for the legislative session that begins Monday – until House staffers completed an analysis of how much money the complicated measure would raise. “We need precise and exact numbers, and until then we’re not moving forward on the bill,” Kleckley told Rainwater, noting that the Jindal administration has revised its revenue estimates more than once.

“OK, thanks,” Rainwater replied curtly and hung up.

”There have been growing concerns that we’re not an independent, co-equal branch of government.” — Rep. John Bel Edwards

Recalling the conversation Thursday, Kleckley said, “It was probably the shortest phone conversation I’ve ever had with Paul Rainwater.”

Eighteen months ago, Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, bested two rivals and got Jindal’s nod to become speaker. Since then he had faced increasing criticism that he operated at the governor’s bidding.

Now Kleckley has declared his independence, at least temporarily.

His resistance reflects the governor’s political weakness. Kleckley’s evolving role also offers insights into how Louisiana’s Legislature conducts the business of setting policy and making law.

Kleckley revealed his move away from Jindal on Wednesday at the speaker’s annual pre-session luncheon with the Capitol press corps. Along with delaying hearings on the tax bill, Kleckley told reporters gathered in his lodgings at the Pentagon Barracks apartment complex that he couldn’t see supporting the measure because it would raise taxes on business. By the administration’s own estimate, businesses will be left paying some $500 million more per year under the tax swap, which eliminates personal and corporate income taxes and franchise fees while making the combination of state and local sales taxes on average the highest in the nation.

“This is bad news for the governor,” said Raymond “La La” Lalonde,  who represented St. Landry and Lafayette parishes in the House for four terms. “Kleckley has been just a staunch supporter of Jindal, taking his marching orders whatever they were. Jindal’s in trouble with a whole lot of legislators. When his own speaker goes against him, he’s in even more trouble. But it’s good for the state. We need the Legislature to be an independent branch of government.”

Kleckley made his announcement a day after Southern Media & Opinion Research released a bombshell poll showing that Jindal has become unpopular with a majority of Louisianans for the first time during his five-plus years as governor. With Jindal’s approval rating sinking from 61 percent a year ago to the current 38 percent, state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, predicted upon release of the poll that legislators would begin to distance themselves from the governor.

No one knows, of course, to what extent Kleckley will buck the governor. And many Capitol insiders — including senior House members who spoke on condition that their names not be published — believe the speaker separated himself from Jindal at the prompting of state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who chairs Ways and Means and is sponsoring the tax bill. They believe Robideaux told the speaker that he would not push the measure because it faced such strong opposition from Democrats and Republicans; Kleckley stood up to the governor as a face-saving measure, the insiders suggest.

Kleckley dismissed talk that he and Robideaux are out of step. “Joel and I have a great working relationship,” he said.

Robideaux did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Either way, stopping Jindal’s ambitious tax plan will likely shore up Kleckley’s standing within the 105-member House.

“There’s been a sense of this as another attempt by the governor to rush major legislation through the process,” said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who is the House speaker pro tem. Kleckley’s announcement “is an indication of independence by the Legislature,” Leger added. “That’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that we won’t support the governor. It says that our views are just as important as the governor’s. That hasn’t always been apparent in the past.”

Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s communications director, and Sean Lansing, the governor’s press secretary, did not respond to a request Thursday to interview the governor.

Kleckley owns two convenience stores in Calcasieu Parish. The governor’s proposal, by raising sales taxes, would hit the speaker’s customers in the pocketbook.

Kleckley, 53, got his start in politics in 2000 by defeating an incumbent on the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. He won a special election to the House in 2005, without opposition, and has won re-election twice since then, also without opposition, in a district that covers south Lake Charles.

“He’s voted conservatively like the district he represents,” said Dan Flavin, a Republican whose resignation opened the House seat.

“He’s been a bridge builder,” said Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach, a Democrat. “I don’t always agree with him. But we work through the disagreement.”

Kleckley chaired the insurance committee during Jindal’s first term, from 2007-11, but didn’t distinguish himself.

In late 2011, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, was leaving office. Tucker’s relationship with Jindal had grown contentious when the speaker supported a small cigarette tax renewal that the governor opposed and then opposed a measure pushed by Jindal that would shield many of the governor’s records from public view.

With his down-home manner, Kleckley positioned himself to replace Tucker. So did Robideaux and state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro. Critics say the governor favored Kleckley because the governor assumed he could control him, unlike Tucker.

As speaker, Kleckley has faced criticism for acceding last year to Jindal’s demand that he ram an education package through the House, one that expanded Louisiana’s voucher program and weakened teacher tenure rules. State courts have ruled both measures unconstitutional. The Jindal administration is appealing.

Kleckley also removed four state legislators from choice committee assignments after they opposed Jindal on major initiatives, a punitive step not taken by a speaker in years. The four blamed the governor, not Kleckley.

C.B. Forgotston, a former legislative counsel for the House Appropriations Committee who writes a prominent blog that frequently lashes the governor, repeatedly attacked Kleckley as Jindal’s “lap dog.”

Many lawmakers agreed, although in less colorful language.

“Kleckley has absolutely done the governor’s bidding,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who heads the House Democratic Caucus. “He has pushed legislative instruments of the governor’s in committee. His rulings from the House floor have supported the governor. He has been in lock-step with the administration. There have been growing concerns that we’re not an independent, co-equal branch of government.”

Jindal announced his tax measure in mid-January and then began meeting with legislators privately to win their support. In recent days, he has been speaking in each of Louisiana’s major media markets and an ad bought by his political action committee is airing throughout the state. In Alexandria on Wednesday, Jindal said, “Right now, we have tax code that is unfair, complex and unstable because there are over 460 loopholes,” according to the Alexandria Town Talk.

But other than retired LSU economist Loren Scott, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, few people or constituent groups in Louisiana have supported the plan publicly. By contrast, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Public Affairs Research Council, the Legislative Black Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus and a group of ministers from across the state either oppose the plan outright or have expressed serious reservations about it.

By the time Kleckley spoke on Wednesday, doubts had grown that the Ways and Means Committee, even with a Republican majority, would approve the bill.

“I think he was tired of being out on a limb,” said Vic Stelly, who served four terms in the state House from Lake Charles and knows Kleckley well. “I guess Chuck said enough is enough.”

Kleckley’s critics are now cheering him.

“Chuck is a good person,” said state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, who was one of the four legislators punished by Kleckley. “He was led down the wrong path for awhile. But he wants to go home with a good legacy.”

“I’m willing to give him credit on this,” Forgotston said. “I am impressed that he stepped up on behalf of his membership. It’s very clear that his members don’t want to vote on the tax law this session. Kleckley is buying time for Jindal to figure out what he’ll do next.”

Kleckley said the House may still pass a revamp of the tax system. He noted that four other legislators – three Republicans and one Democrat – have put forward competing measures.

“All of them may be incorporated into the governor’s plan, or pieces of them can be used,” he said.

Hunt Downer Jr. said that he understands Kleckley’s plight, that being speaker requires a balancing act. Downer represented Houma in the House as both a Democrat and Republican for 28 years, including a term as speaker from 1996-2000, during Gov. Mike Foster’s first term.

“You have to stand up for your legislators,” Downer said, adding that he preferred to keep his disagreements with the governor from public view. “There are times that the interests of the House and speaker are somewhat opposed to the governor.”

Downer ended up opposing a tax increase supported by Foster, and Foster chose another speaker for his second term. That won’t happen to Kleckley since Jindal is already in his second term.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....